Middlesbrough 0 Everton 1: McClaren crashes back to real world

McFadden ends Everton goal drought as Boro manager finds League tougher than Europe
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The Independent Football

For much of the afternoon at the Riverside yesterday Steve McClaren stood pensively at pitch-side, sipping his water. If it is a question of which candidate has the bottle for the job of England head coach, then the Middlesbrough manager has made a strong case for himself these past four days.

On Thursday night he took the gamble that paid off big-time, pitching a four-man attack against Steaua Bucharest and the odds of a three-goal aggregate deficit and striking the jackpot of a Uefa Cup final spot. Well, his players do carry the logo on their shirts of a company described as "the world's No 1 online casino and poker room".

On Friday night, with the wagons of the popular press said to be circling, the Middlesbrough manager played the cool hand of getting his retaliation in first - removing the skeleton from his personal closet before any great damage could be done. "I was separated from my wife a year ago and had a three-month affair," he told The Sun. "I feel this is a private matter but in view of speculation about myself and the England job I felt I had to clarify the situation."

Given the failure of Luiz Felipe Scolari to cope with the mildest dose of English media intrusion, it is a fair bet that McClaren's pre-emptive clarification may well have enhanced his prospects of landing the England job. After all, revelations of private matters relating to the present incumbent did little to harm his stock with the powers that be at Soho Square.

Not that guessing the next act in this Rixian farce of a selection process is an easy matter. It could well involve blindfolds and the sticking of pins.

In the meantime, McClaren has a European club final date the Wednesday after next - a big Continental feather in his cap - and the challenge of getting his team prepared for it to occupy him. Getting through the final fixtures of the Premiership season without significant damage to bodies and to the spirit of Thursday night were the twin objectives and at least the former stayed on track yesterday.

The risk of physical harm was minimal, with just two members of the starting XI against Steaua back in the firing line. Even then, the pair in question, the goalkeeper Brad Jones and left-back Andrew Taylor, might as well have put their feet up for the first half as Everton failed to trouble a Middlesbrough team featuring six academy graduates.

One Leon Osman snapshot was the sum total of Everton's attacking endeavour before the interval, maintaining a run of form that has put them on course for their lowest tally of League goals for 128 years. Middlesbrough, for all their changes, enjoyed the better of the opening half and had their chances in the second half, too, James Morrison and Aiyegbeni Yakubu squandering the best of them.

Everton lost the injured Richard Wright nine minutes into the second half but gradually stepped up the pressure at the other end. James McFadden was thwarted by a brilliant Jones save before he lobbed a shot over the stranded keeper from 25 yards. For the second time in three days, an 89th-minute goal was greeted with scenes of delirium at the Riverside - this time within the visiting supporters' enclosure.

It was the first Everton goal in eight hours and 33 minutes of Premiership play. Still, after the final whistle in Middlesbrough's final home game of the season, McClaren and his players and back-room staff took a generously received lap of honour.

A manager who can lose and still be hailed as a hero: that has to be another big tick for those Football Association boxes.

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